This paper examines Margaret Williams’ three well-known 1972 Meanjin articles on New Wave drama. It reads them retrospectively, against the overall achievements of the movement, to show the cogency and prescience of Williams’ critique, particularly in respect to its oft-asserted nationalism. A synopsis of the arguments of each of her articles, which appeared within an eight-month period, is given, and note taken of the significant, indeed, pervasive influence they had on defining the New Wave in its early years. Williams’ analysis of the role of stereotypes in New Wave drama in her second article, “Snakes and Ladders” is examined in some detail. The paper ends by affirming her description of the movement not in terms of an essential Australian identity, but as a transnationally-influenced projection of a new set of social and artistic values – as a new theatrical freedom.


It may be that, as Richard Wherrett says in his autobiography The Floor of Heaven,‘Nimrod Theatre in Sydney and the Australian Performing Group in Melbourne were arguably inevitable in both time and place’ (Wherrett 54). But any in-depth examination of so-called New Wave theatre shows it to be a more contingent phenomenon that its catchy moniker suggests. Metaphors when applied to history can be true (McCullagh 75-81), even undulating ones culled from evolutionary theory. Yet they exclude even as they define, tidy away as they tidy up. And if the term New Wave needs careful handling, how much more cautious should we be when considering the characteristics liturgically used to describe it: irreverent, rebarbative, gutsy in content, scrofulous in form; in a word, rough, in another, larrikin. [1] While one can indeed find these qualities in plays of the period, and what remains of the record of the performances, one can find opposite ones too, and discover that even simple descriptors render themselves spongy and opaque when viewed as categories of experience;[2] that is, when we ask how New Wavers actually used these terms when they first appeared.

These thoughts might be small beer, a rote chant of caution striking the lay ear as the manufacture of scholarly difference but that, right from the start, they were part of the burgeoning consciousness of the New Wave itself. Re-reading Margaret Williams three classic Meajin articles from 1972, one is struck by their cool, appraising qualities, the note of judicious and searching inquiry, so different from the homogenetic portrayals of New Wave drama today. Her articles are rightly regarded as defining ones, and the reason is clear: because of their historical lucidity, their literary insight, their practical awareness of actual theatre-making. The result is an analysis committed yet profoundly un-partisan, an attempt to recognise, record and assess the appearance of a new social and artistic movement even as it was coming into being.

Revisiting the articles over thirty years later provides two valuable critical vistas. First, it shows an influential group of artists before its rhetorical expressions had hardened into self-consciousness. One might suppose this to reveal a less complex view of theatre and the world, but the opposite is true. New Wave self-identity became narrower as time wore on. It was more sophisticated at the start, an indication that there were things, both political and artistic, on which it had yet to make up its mind. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it presents a battery of ideas and concerns which over-determined the entire period. Williams knew what the New Wave was thinking before it knew itself, and her articles, as the first articulate examination of its philosophy, provided the language for later self-description. This is what gives them their charm and their edge. They are of their time, but also ahead of it, and thus reach out to history to confirm and to question the solemn belief of the period: that a new theatrical order had arrived.

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The three articles appeared within six months of each other, short, pithy expressions that exude confidence and scepticism in equal measure. ‘Why, fifty years after Esson,’ Williams wonders in the first (“Snakes and Ladders”, June 1972), ‘must Australian plays still be evaluated on the basis of aspiration rather than achievement? Australian drama has never lacked for hopeful beginnings; what it could use is some sign of continuity and development’ (180).

The problem for Williams lay in the reduction of Australian drama to Australian themes -with seeing New Wave plays as artistic expressions of a sociological problem, that of national identity – a skew which became more questionable the more it became entrenched. Here Williams sounds a prescient note. She queries the imputed nationalism of the movement not because its protestations of ‘Matilda’ Australian-ness[3] were inauthentic, but because they only partly explain the work itself. In half a dozen paragraphs of succinct historical overview, Williams notes Australian playwrights had always borrowed and adapted overseas forms – the melodrama in the 1890s (Alfred Dampier’s Robbery Under Arms), the Irish folk play in the 1930s (Louis Esson’s The Drovers), the three-act naturalistic drama in the 1950s (Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll) – though these had ‘not always been as congenial as they might have been to the interpreting of Australian society’ (181). What marked out the New Wave as different was not that the borrowing had stopped, but that it proceeded from radically different premises, ones beholden less to notions of dramatic style than of performance process:

Today’s groups have been lucky in inheriting – largely from overseas experiment – a concept of alternative theatre that has enabled them to exploit the immediacy of their converted accommodation, and the spontaneity of untrained actors… But it is the playwrights who have been luckiest of all. Largely through the alternative theatre experiments in improvisation and diversity of styles in Europe and the States, they have inherited a freedom and flexibility of dramatic form which has allowed them to interpret their own society, its rituals and mythology, without inhibiting preconceptions as to dramatic shape and style… This time…. Australian playwrights have inherited not a particular form but the absence of form – a lack of presupposition about dramatic norms, and a freedom to by-pass traditional models, leaving the door open for experiment to the point of waywardness (180 & 181).

Williams’ awareness of the trans-national motivations of 1970s drama and its reliance on global ideas of ‘alternative’ theatre are worthy of note. Three decades on, and scholars and critics have still found no method of unpicking New Wave nationalist credentials in a way that convincingly illuminates its de-centred universe, its multiple impulses and interests. Depending on the writer’s cultural and political assumptions, New Wave nationalism stands either valorised (Radic 1991, Milne 2004) or condemned (Jacobson 1973, Rowse 1985). But Williams’ is a more subtle understanding, one leaving the door ajar for broad-based cultural critique while insisting that, on the level of artistic practice, New Wave drama was a complex historical object with fingers in all sorts of pies. ‘After all,’ Williams says in passing ‘the little Café La Mama where it all began in 1967 was christened after its parent experimental theatre in New York – it is surely a little ironic that Australian playwrights should have had to inherit even the freedom not to be derivative from overseas’ (original emphasis 181). Though it was not ironic, as ‘Snakes and Ladders’ underscores.

To bracket notions of national identity is to pass from a concern with the New Wave’s imaging to a study of the operation of its work processes. Never mind the supposedly ‘Australian’ results, what did these artists actually do that was different? ‘Ironically, the insistence on explicit Australianism… only confirms the old second-handedness’ Williams states in “Mask and Cage” (Sept 1972), ‘for it reinforces a long-standing assumption that Australian life is inherently lacking in the possibility for transmutation into imaginative terms’ (312). Such teleological thinking leads to homogenisation and lack of critical distinction. Disparate efforts in disparate contexts are rolled into one panoptic snap-shot that averages, normalises and flattens out. Global metaphors stalk abroad, over-extended and predatory. New drama becomes New Wave Drama and a certain attitude struck in the teeth of the cultural wind is permanently fixed to the face when the direction of that wind changes. Australian drama is explained – and explained away.

It is in her second, crucial article that Williams indicates a more fruitful and less totalising way of understanding the theatrical telos of the period. At the time of writing, new Australian drama was beginning a heady ascent to the heights of regular mainstream programming – so much so that Williams felt compelled to add an addendum warning of the perils of premature commercial exposure (312-3). Earlier in the year David Williamson’s The Removalists won the coveted George Devine award, while the work of other Australian playwrights – Jack Hibberd, Dorothy Hewett, Alex Buzo and John Romeril especially – was getting produced or published or both. Williams takes issue with the critical response to this work, one that judged it as falling short of literary and dramatic standards that in her view did not apply. ‘Old well-made naturalism may have largely fallen into disfavour, but its critical legacy dies harder,’ she comments of Harry Kippax’s response to White with Wire Wheels. ‘Ironically the review notes exactly those qualities that [the play] exploits and explores, and yet finds [it] wanting against a set of assumptions about the intrinsic nature of drama that will surely not accommodate any number of notable works from Everyman to Waiting for Godot’ (309). Then, in a passage that has conditioned our understanding of New Wave drama ever since, she argues:

In fact it is precisely in their deviation from the dramatic norm assumed by the review…. that a number of recent plays make their point. In spite of their veneer of devastatingly accurate sociological observation, few if any are naturalistic works; the device they exploit is the stereotype (original emphasis), in a formalized verbal and structural patterning that makes the apparent naturalism a brittle veneer as far removed from mere reportage as are the polished surfaces of a Noel Coward play. This is obvious enough in plays such as the two early Hibberd farces, Dimboola and Customs and Excise, where the gross caricatures and verbal clichés take on a comic-strip absurdity; it is less obvious in those plays in which the comparative naturalism of the surface has led to their being seen as simply as pieces of social documentary, and yet it is in just these plays that the stereotype becomes a surprisingly sophisticated dramatic device in its own right (309).

But how is ‘the stereotype’ a ‘sophisticated dramatic device’, particularly in comparison with the ‘well-rounded characters’ beloved of pro-naturalistic critics (Kippax later famously revised his opinion of New Wave drama; but at the start he was a curmudgeonly critic of it). By way of unpacking her insight, Williams looks at a cluster of plays, some sociologically-inclined, others more mytho-poetic. In the first category she puts White With Wire Wheels, The Front Room Boys, Rooted, The Removalist andDon’s Party, the list suggesting an interesting progression from explicit anti-naturalism to more nuanced non-naturalism. In the second she places Stretch of the Imagination(‘in my opinion the first genuine dramatic classic Australia has produced’, 311) and a host of ‘larger than life’ progenitors, such as Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis’ The Legend of King O’Malley, Barry Oakley’s The Feet of Daniel Mannix and Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous. But whether the subject matter is social shenanigans in Carlton terraces or verbal phantasmagoria in Beckettian wastelands, Williams is adamant that what makes these plays tick is a new dramatic deployment of the portrayal of social types.

To grasp what Williams means it is helpful to reflect on the approach she sees New Wave playwrights rejecting. At the start of “Mask and Cage” she provides a provenance for its inclinations by quoting Vincent Buckley’s The Image of Man in Australian Poetry – ‘Our philosophy is social, concerned with consolidating human relations rather than understanding them’ and ‘the image of man in Australian drama is… collective… rather than individual’ (308). Thus an emphasis on individual psychology and motivation in the Stanislavkian sense would not be congruent with this aesthetic. But the matter is more complicated – and interesting – than this. When discussing the plays themselves, Williams argues, against the grain of apparent logic, that the use of stereotype leads to more, not less, emotional resonance in performance:

There is no real depth or subtlety in… two-dimensional characters… but there is an indefinite range of potential complexity in the unstated relationships and tensions beneath the clichés and superficialities of the social interchange. A whole range of emotional and psychological exploration is potentially there without the conventional trappings of individualization (original emphasis, 311).

And again, invoking, half-seriously, a comparison between Chekhov and Williamson:

[It] is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Chekhov’s plays are, after all, plays about a society defensive against intrusive reality; his characters are essentially representative types whose naturalistic-seeming dialogue is a complex patterning which deflects from that reality and at the same time evokes it through the very evasion…. The potential of Williamson’s work lies in the gradual extending of the possibilities of the ‘spaces in between’ the characters in very much a Chekhovian way (312).

The clue is the phrase ‘spaces in between’. Williams correctly discerns, though she does not fully explicate, New Wave drama’s move away from exposition and its replacement with complex image. For audiences , this means a reduction in verbal information – including character information – and a reliance on techniques connoting more than they denote ie. ones capable of stimulating an audience’s flow of inferences and associations during the course of a drama, thus deepening their emotional and intellectual connection with it. In the case of ‘social dramas’ like the early Williamson plays, spectators are required to draw on their knowledge of contemporary Australian manners and mores to fill in the ‘spaces in between’; in the case of theatrical ‘archetypal dramas’ like Hibberd and Romeril, the allusions are more literary and historical. Either way, the result is a double movement: to re-endow the force and appeal of character in performance, even as it is stripped of traits on the page. In Williams’ world, oxymoronically, flatness has more depth and the result is not just new drama but a newkind of drama, where characters are capable of ‘indefinite human and imaginative extension, without losing their representative quality’ (311).

“Snakes and Ladders” and “Mask and Cage” can, and should, be read against each other. The latter is the positive image of the former. A preoccupation with national identity stunts the elaboration of, and response to, the dramatic techniques entrained by New Wave playwrights. The best kind of ‘native drama’, to use the term Williams favours, is the kind whose Australian-ness is apparent only after the fact. To put a national label on a play’s sensibility from the get-go is not only to hide a provable array of cross-cultural influences. It is to presume the very identity the writing sets out to explore, to present something as set and rigid, when in fact all is flux and change. New wave drama for Williams – and this is an insight that often evades even the keenest of its critics – is all process. The matter of Australian identity, where it has meaning, is one outcome of that process, a convergence of verbal pattern and performance form that illuminates a temporary and passing social fact. It lies in the opposite direction to a fixation with national character. Though it is not unsympathetic to the quest for self-identity it is the journey, not the destination that is of dramatic value.

Williams’ last article in the series, “Australian Drama – A Postscript” (Dec 1972) re-states her aversion to aggressive national imaging of New Wave drama, a tactic that is questionable, if not out-and-out cynical:

Australian drama tends to be justified in terms of its direct relevance to our own society, and to be excused from having to defer to ‘world’ standards, only when it looks like not making the grade. As soon as it seems that it might, there is an almost indecent scramble to justify it by those very overseas standards that were formerly held to be irrelevant – so indecent a haste, in fact, that it might well seem… that the whole purpose of having a national identity is to justify us abroad (445).

To a pernicious preoccupation with national identity, Williams notes a congruent and equally muddling fetish, a fixation with commercialism:

It is understandable, I suppose, that after its long alienation from the commercial and professional stage, Australian drama should seem to have ‘arrived’ at last when it can produce a commercial success… [But] ‘commercial’ is not in itself a term of praise or denigration, but merely a descriptive term to denote theatre organized for profit, rather than first and foremost for artistic reasons… [In] recent press criticism… ‘commercial’, and even ‘marketable’ and ‘money-making’ seem to have acquired connotations of intrinsic quality… And what, one might ask, is supposed to become of a good play which does not happen to be potentially money-making? Or is talent to be defined in terms of marketability? Australian criticism seems in danger of developing an economic vocabulary of quality (original emphasis 445-6).

The conclusions of “A Postscript” are less clear-cut than “Snakes and Ladders” and “Mask and Cage”. In many ways, the article identifies a web of tensions rather than a set of problems. Williams makes a case for the grunge production style that companies like the APG and Nimrod provided their writers, both by choice and perforce by financial constraint. But she is unwilling to transmute this into an absolute claim: ‘Ideally, of course, playwrights should be free to choose whatever kind of production – commercial, professional or ‘alternative’ – they feel is appropriate for their work’ (446). Likewise, she is unresolved about the issue of ‘world standards’. On the one hand, its application to New Wave drama would seem antithetical – a rejection of pointless and abstract foreign comparisons lay at the heart of the movement. On the other, drama, to be good and truthful must aspire to universal address, else it separate itself from notions of common human response: ‘Australian drama can only ask to be accepted anywhere for its entertainment value, its perception, its wit and wisdom – in short, its dramatic quality – though in the process it cannot fail to enlarge our understanding of our own society’ (original emphasis 447-8).

Perhaps even as early as 1972 Williams sensed what was coming: a lighting-fast orgy of critical labelling of New Wave theatre that would downplay its anarchic energy and incongruent features even as it claimed to legitimate the movement as a whole. Certainly John McCallum could state a few years later that ‘reviewers during the period… created a language of critical description and a set of standards which [were] to a large degree inappropriate to the plays about which they [were] writing. They [had] a suitable subject (nationalism) and expected or assumed that writers would write about it in a suitable style (naturalism). To his extent at least the conclusion must be that they failed in their role’ (McCallum: 10). Their failure is not entirely surprising. The central driver of New Wave drama, as Williams describes it, is the use of image, character compression and metaphor. Its polyglot plays draw sharply on current social awareness and assumptions, even as they speak to the immediacy of the performance event. They are thus susceptible, peculiarly so, to changes in context. An over-concern with national identity and/or commercial success undermines the fragile social contract with the spectator New Wave writing requires. Unlike plays from another era with their pachydermous literary styles and pages of author’s notes, New Wave writing has no way of protecting itself from misinterpretation other than the understanding of those who seek to stage it. This reliance on sympathetic context may explain why the theatre politics of the 1970s got so personal, and why these plays are not more often revived today (you have to do more than just read them; you have to read the period). For all its bold assertions of uniqueness and shows of strength, there is something axiomatically vulnerable about the New Wave, and the tone of Williams’ articles reflects this. A cloud-soft note of solicitude hangs over her analysis and deepens the scholarly acuity. All will not be easy for the movement and this, while not wholly a bad thing, is bound to knock artists about. Hence her concern not to limit the imaginative reach of the New Wave by premature critical definition, to say what it is before it has a chance to find out for itself. Hence her determination to look beyond catch-phrases and set positions to see what it is New Waver playwrights actually did.

William’s complex more rounded position regarding the plays of her time is especially relevant now that Australian drama really is in a mid period of development. It has continued on, if not matured, and the problems it faces – of cultural diversity, public investment, national networking at home and international connection abroad – no longer fit the story of a ‘history of beginnings’. And yet in our structural unconscious, national evolutionary metaphors persist. Who, one might sometimes wonder, among Australian theatre artists, does not harbour visions of revolutionary transformation, of a great crashing ‘new, new wave’, investing their own particular artistic approach with the sudden headiness of cultural triumph? The unhelpful corollary – that Australian drama is a series of competitive upgrades, a game of winners and losers, leading edges and stodgy centres – is both a-historical and pernicious. What Australian theatre lacks now is what it has always lacked: adequate metaphors for meaningful change. This, Williams saw, with startling clarity, sensing the gap not only between reality and rhetoric but between new work and the dramatic canon, the fragment of the present and the body of the historical past. ‘The drama’s task is not to define but to refine’ she concludes in ‘A Postscript’:

To submit Australian reality to the same re-creating and re-evaluating process that is the task of all art, so that it becomes the vehicle for comedy and tragedy, passion and imagination. Until this happens, Australian life will remain flat and untilled soil, its imaginative possibilities unrealised. And while this is so, the classics of the rest of the world can only seem irrelevant, cultural fossils instead of living works. We can only see the way they have made something rich and strange out of raw experience when we see that our own reality is capable of it too. Just how far Australian society is from this kind of self-awareness is apparent in both the defensive pre-occupation with our national self-image, and the commercialism which evaluates even artistic merit in marketable terms. The job of the playwrights, of which most of them are well aware, is to help make Australians a more perceptive, passionate and compassionate people. That, surely, is the only kind of national identity ever worth having’ (448).



[1] See most particularly Katherine Brisbane’s “Preserving the Disreputable” (1970) and “Not Wrong-Just Different” (1971), Jack Hibberd’s “Wanted: A Display of Shanks” (1970) and Dororthy Hewett’s “Shirts, Prams and Tomato Sauce” (1976).

[2] For a discussion of the complexities of describing New Wave plays see See How It Runs: Nimrod and the New Wave (Meyrick 2000).

[3] For a discussion of ‘Matilda’ Australian-ness, particular as it relates to the literary journal Meanin, see Johanson 2000: 31-37.


Brisbane, Katharine (1970). “Preserving the Disreputable” in Holloway, Peter, ed (1979)Contemporary Australian Drama 1st Edition (Sydney: Currency Press)

Brisbane, Katharine (1971). “Not Wrong-Just Different” in Holloway, Peter, ed (1979)Contemporary Australian Drama 1st Edition (Sydney: Currency Press)

Hewett, Dorothy (1976). “Shirts, Prams, and Tomato Sauce” in Holloway, Peter, ed (1987) Contemporary Australian Drama 2nd Edition (Sydney: Currency Press)

Hibberd, Jack (1970). “Wanted: A Display of Shanks” in Hollway, Peter, ed (1987)Contemporary Australian Drama 2nd Edition (Sydney: Currency Press)

Jacobson, Howard (1973). “Davo and Johno and Hibo [sic] and Buzo”, Current Affairs Bulletin Vol. 50, no. 3: 30-1

Johanson, Katya (2000). “The Role of Australia’s Cultural Council 1945-1995” PhD Diss. University of Melbourne (unpublished)

Meyrick, Julian (2002). See How It Runs: Nimrod and the New Wave (Sydney: Currency Press)

McCallum, John (1981) “Some Preoccupations in Australian Theatre Criticism 1955-78” MA Diss. New South Wales University (unpublished)

McCullagh, C. Brendan (1998). The Truth of History (New York: Routledge)

Milne, Geoffrey (2004). Theatre Australia (Un)Limited: Australian Theatre Since the 1950s (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi)

Radic, Leonard (1991). The State of Play: The Revolution in the Australian Theatre Since the 1960s (Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin)

Rowse, Tim (1985). Arguing the Arts (Ringwood, Melbourne: Penguin)

Wherret, Richard (2000). The Floor of Heaven: My Life in Theatre (Sydney: Hodder Headline)

Williamson, Margaret (1972). “Snakes and Ladders” Meanjin Vol. 31, No. 2: 179-182

Williamson, Margaret (1972). “Mask and Cage” Meanjin Vol. 31, No. 3: 308-13

Williamson, Margaret (1972). “Australian Drama – A Postscript: Some Comments on Recent Criticism” Meanjin Vol. 31, No. 4: 444-8